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Why we need to bring physical activity back into our schools

For some time, educational leaders have been emphasizing the importance of physical activity in schools. The premise is that if children are active, they will develop good habits, feel better, be healthier and grow into adults who make exercise a priority. This is an important goal, but it is only part of the story.

Based on my recent work with school leaders, teachers and students, and an extensive review of the research in this area, I am reminded of another important reason that we have to get school communities moving: Physical activity has a significant effect on academic achievement.

The evidence for the bodily benefits of physical activity is clear. At any age, regular exercise improves the health of our hearts, lungs, blood, bones, skin and almost every other organ. A growing body of research also shows that exercise can improve mental health. Yet despite this wealth of evidence, it remains a challenge for people to incorporate physical activity into their lives. Sadly, only 15 per cent of Canadians come close to the recommended levels of physical activity.

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The numbers are equally bad for schoolchildren. We don't seem to be able to get them moving based on the idea that it will make them healthier. But there is increased traction for the idea that we can get them moving if we emphasize the impact of physical activity on academic performance. The concept is that by doing the right activities at the right times, we can change the way children's brains work and increase their ability to consistently and easily perform at a high level.

The research is compelling.

Dr. Arthur Kramer's lab at the University of Illinois showed that children who did aerobic exercise for 20 minutes before writing math tests improved their scores. It also showed that children who did regular exercise had different brain structures than those who were less active. The brain regions that were more developed in the exercise group were related to attention control, cognitive control and response resolution – the centres of the brain that help us maintain attention and crisply co-ordinate actions and thoughts. These results were confirmed in young adults, illustrating that it's not just children who benefit from exercise before mental tasks.

Another study of 5,000 children in Britain, conducted by Dr. Josie Booth from the University of Dundee, found that 15 minutes of exercise improved performance in math by about a quarter of a grade point. She also found that those increments in performance continued right up to 60 minutes of exercise per day. This means that getting 60 minutes of activity could possibly boost academic performance by a full grade point (for example, from a B to an A).

Harvard psychiatrist Dr. John Ratey explains this concept in his book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. He writes, "Physical activity sparks biological changes that encourage brain cells to bind to one another. … The more neuroscientists discover about this process, the clearer it becomes that exercise provides an unparalleled stimulus, creating an environment in which the brain is ready, willing, and able to learn."

Imagine the impact on the ability to learn if we could design our school days so that children did physical activity right before math or science class. Or think about what is possible if we expanded this idea even further and programmed music right before creative writing classes or integrated drama and language.

The evidence is clear: Exercise before certain mental tasks will result in better academic performance for our students. For this reason, on top of the significant health benefits, we need to strategically build physical activity into all levels of academic programs on a daily basis. There are important financial and time considerations associated with this approach, but we can't afford not to make this change. The costs of inaction are too significant.

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Health Advisor contributors share their knowledge in fields ranging from fitness to psychology, pediatrics to aging.

Dr. Greg Wells is an assistant professor in kinesiology at the University of Toronto and an associate scientist in physiology and experimental medicine at the Hospital for Sick Children. You can visit his website at drgregwells.com or follow him on Twitter @drgregwells.

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